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'Condolence mission' halted in Egypt

At least 18 activists, including some of Egypt's most prominent bloggers, were arrested yesterday when they attempted to visit the town of Naga Hammadi and offer condolences over the killing of six Christians and a Muslim security guard last week. 

They were intercepted on arrival, as they stepped off a train, and at the time of writing their whereabouts is unknown. Reports: Al-Masry al-Youm and Bikya Masr. The Egyptian Chronicles and Arabist blogs also have lists of those arrested.

The Egyptian authorities are clearly very touchy about the murders and the riots that followed them. There is also a widespread reluctance to admit to the existence of sectarian tensions in the country.

The government's official line – incredible as it may seem – is that the violence was an isolated incident and not sectarian in character. Naga Hammadi's member of parliament, Fathi Qandil, last week blamed it on "a hot-headed man" and insisted that "no reconciliation is needed between Muslims and Christians here because they're already reconciled. Nothing happened that warrants reconciliation."

There were similar examples of denial among people interviewed by Al-Masry al-Youm in the streets of Cairo this week:

Hajj Ahmed, 60, newspaper kiosk owner: “I think it is a Jewish conspiracy against Egyptians to distort our image in the West. They hired hit men to shoot some Christians. Jews aim at causing sectarian strife between Egyptian Muslims and Christians.”

Ahmed el Sayed, 33, lawyer: “Of course, it is criminal action because we all love one another here. It is the media that always tends to exaggerate this issue. Why doesn’t it focus on vendetta where Muslims kill each other every day in Upper Egypt and nobody bothers to stop that?”

Said Safwat, 40, science teacher: “There isn’t sectarian strife in Egypt. It is so clear that they are taking revenge for the rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man.”

Zeinobia, at the Egyptian Chronicles blog, challenges the idea that the killings were a reprisal for the Muslim girl's rape. She points out that the alleged rapist was already under arrest and says: "According to retaliation tradition laws in Upper Egypt the father of the girl or her brother is the one who should revenge for his daughter or sister’s honour from that man or his family only."

The man alleged to be leader of the gang that killed the Christians is widely reported to be a well-known criminal with links to the ruling National Democratic Party.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 January 2010. Comment

Saudi internet censorship

The Saudi authorities – who operate one of the world's most sophisticated internet filtering systems – receive on average 850 requests per day from members of the public to block access to websites, Asharq Alwsat reports. Requests to unblock websites are running at around 200 a day.

This is a substantial increase since 2001, when blocking requests 
were said to be 500-plus and unblocking requests 100 per day. 

Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia concentrates mainly on blocking pornography and websites promoting "immorality". In 2004, after testing 60,000 web addresses for blocking by the Saudi authorities over a three-year period, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) reported:

We found that the kingdom’s filtering focuses on a few types of content: pornography (98% of these sites tested blocked in our research), drugs (86%), gambling (93%), religious conversion, and sites with tools to circumvent filters (41%). In contrast, Saudi Arabia shows less interest in sites on gay and lesbian issues (11%), politics (3%), Israel (2%), religion (less than 1%), and alcohol (only 1 site).

Although only a few religious sites were blocked, ONI found that most of those blocked “involved either views opposed to Islam (especially Christian views) or non-Sunni Islamic sects (including Shi’a and Sufism)”. A “significant minority” of Baha’i sites were also blocked but the ONI found no blocking of sites related to Judaism, “and very few sites with Jewish or Hebrew content”. Some sites relating to the Holocaust were blocked, “though this occurs primarily because SmartFilter [the software used by the Saudis] categorises many of these sites as having violent content”. 

Several sites supporting al-Qa’eda were found to be blocked as well as the sites of al-Manar (the Hizbullah TV station) and the Palestinian al-Quds brigades. In the religious area, the blocking of Shi’a websites is perhaps most significant because it further marginalises the kingdom’s own Shi’a minority (thought to be around five per cent of the population).

In the political area, ONI found blocking of “several sites opposing the current [Saudi] government along with a minority of sites discussing the state of Israel, or advocating violence against Israel and the west, and a small amount of material from Amnesty International and Amnesty USA”. In the media area, no major news outlets were blocked, though some e-zines were.

There's more discussion of internet censorship, in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 January 2010. Comment

Mauritanian fatwa against FGM

A group of religious leaders and other prominent figures in Mauritania have issued a fatwa against female genital mutilation (FGM).

The fatwa says FGM "has been proven by experts to be detrimental, immediately or subsequently. Hence, such a practice, as is performed domestically, is hereby prohibited, on account of the harm it gives rise to", according to the Magharebia news website.

Sheikh Ould Zein Ould Imam, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Nouakchott, is quoted as saying: "There's no doubt that the fatwa will substantially curb [FGM], since it removes the religious mask such practices were hiding behind. We do need, however, a media campaign to highlight the fatwa, explain it and expound upon its religious and social significance."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 January 2010. Comment

Al-Qaeda ... or not?

An email received from Yemen suggests the widely-reported killing of Adbullah Mehdar (or Mihdar) may not have been the victory against al-Qaeda that it was made out to be. 

My correspondent writes: "The informed thinking down here is that Mehdar was not al-Qaeda but a senior tribes-type guy, who the security wanted to settle a old score with."

Considering the way things work in Yemen, this sounds like a plausible scenario: the Americans tell Salih to do something about al-Qaeda, they give him some money and tools for the job, and hey presto – he shoots one of his old foes, posthumously declaring him to be the leader of an al-Qaeda cell. 

I don't know if this is actually what happened – maybe readers can provide more information about Mehdar and his links to al-Qaeda (if any) – but it wouldn't surprise me.

This could also help to explain the security forces' claim when they attacked the offices of al-Ayyam newspaper in Aden earlier this month that 40 people linked to al-Qaeda were inside the building – a claim that, frankly, I find hard to believe.

Regarding the latest crash of a Yemeni warplane (reported here yesterday), the same correspondent points out that the planes – MiG21s – are very old. 

"There can’t be many air forces relying on such planes," he writes. "A MiG21 flew over my head the other day – one of his engines was belching black smoke and he was struggling to make a landing at Sanaa. Sounded mechanical to me ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2010. Comment

Death threat to Yemeni editor

Mohammed al-Alwani, managing editor of the Yemeni website sahwa.net (linked to the Islah Party) has received a telephoned death threat from a man claiming to work for the government's Political Security Organisation.

Harassment of Yemen's non-governmental media has been stepped up considerably in recent months:

  • The offices of al-Ayyam newspaper in Aden – one of six papers banned last May – were attacked by security forces earlier this month.

  • In November, the NewsYemen website was destroyed by a hacker. The attack was traced back to the Yemeni telecommunications ministry.

  • In September, Mohammed al-Maqaleh (or Maqalih), editor of the Socialist Party’s website, al-Eshteraki, was taken away by armed men and hasn't been seen since. He had earlier published a story about military airstrikes against the Houthi rebels which allegedly killed more than 80 civilians.

  • In July, the head of al-Jazeera's bureau in Yemen received a telephoned death threat.

Other developments in Yemen:

Abdullah Mehdar (or Mihdar), described as a regional leader of al-Qaeda, was reportedly killed after Yemeni security forces surrounded his hideout in Shabwa province. Four suspected militants were arrested. Two soldiers died nearby in what may have been a related incident.

I'm wondering if Mehdar/Mihdar was related to Zain al-Abdin al-Mihdar, who led the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan in the late 1990s and was eventually executed in connection with the kidnapping of a group of western tourists.

The Yemeni military lost another warplane on Wednesday – the third in little more than three months. The crash, as usual, was attributed to a technical fault. 

Last October, a Sukhoi and a MiG21 crashed within three days of each other in the north of the country. Houthi rebels said they had shot down both aircraft, though the government blamed technical faults. Wednesday's crash happened in the south, near Aden.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2010. Comment

More niqab protests in Egypt

Attempts to stop female students wearing the niqab (face veil) continue to meet resistance in Egypt. Al-Masry al-Youm 

Arguments broke out between professors and students at Zagazig University's faculty of education, after professors insisted on female students removing their niqabs before sitting their exams.

The dispute resulted in a state of chaos that delayed the distribution of exam papers. Male students expressed solidarity with their female colleagues, forcing Moussa el-Sharqawi, general supervisor of examination rooms at the education faculty, to let the girls into the exam room. The argument almost degenerated into a fist-fight and university security guards had to interfere to put it down.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2010. Comment

Plight of a Sri Lankan maid

The Jordan Times reports on the case of Ishara Hemanthi, a 23-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker in Amman:

"They would whip me with a phone cord or a water nozzle, and sometimes would pull my hair if I did not finish the tasks they had set for me during the day," she said, adding that she wanted to escape to the [Sri Lankan] embassy a long time ago but her employer threatened to report her to the police for robbery if she did so.

"At first they were very nice to me, although they didn't pay the salary that we had agreed upon in the work contract. Four months later, however, things started to change and I have not been paid my salary for the past eight months," she said, adding she was not given a weekly day off or allowed to call her family.

Jordanian police took little interest in her complaints against her employer, even though she had to be treated in hospital for "severe bruising and swelling all over her body". However, a counter-claim by her employer, alleging theft and sexual abuse of a seven-year-old girl, resulted in Hemanthi spending 12 days in prison before being released on bail. The legal battle continues.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2010. Comment

Saudi move to end child marriages

Saudi Arabia is preparing to outlaw the much-criticised practice of child marriage. According to the Saudi Gazette, the justice ministry is considering a proposal to set 18 as the minimum age for females to marry.

However, the move is likely to meet stiff resistance from religious and traditionalist elements.

There was international controversy last year when a Saudi judge 
refused to annul a marriage contract between a 47-year-old man and an eight-year-old girl.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 January 2010. Comment

Yemen's humanitarian crisis deepens

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Houthi conflict in northern Yemen is rapidly getting worse. Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Andrej Mahecic, announced revised estimates for the number of people displaced by the fighting – putting the total at 200,000. This is an increase of 25,000 since last month's estimate.

The camps set up by aid agencies are having difficulty coping with the influx. Al-Mazrak 1 camp in Hajjah is currently sheltering at least 21,000 people – more than double its original capacity. “There are now huge makeshift sites along the roads close to the al-Mazrak camps. Shelling can be clearly heard in this area and it is a constant reminder of the ongoing conflict in the area,” Mahecic said.

The Yemen government said yesterday its forces had killed 19 Houthi rebels and arrested 25 more in the old city of Saada, but gave few details beyond saying the operation "achieved all of its goals". The government has been claiming for weeks that it is on the verge of clearing the city of rebels.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – which officially joined the war early in November and announced the imminent ending of "major operations" last month, says four more of its soldiers have been killed in clashes with rebels in the border area. 

According to Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the assistant defence minister, 82 Saudis have been killed so far and 21 are missing. Late last month, 470 others were said to have been wounded.

The number of Saudi troops taking part has not been disclosed, but this is clearly a very high casualty rate during the nine weeks of fighting. For comparison, Britain lost 105 soldiers in Afghanistan during the whole of last year, which was by far the worst year since it sent troops there.

  • An unusually good article on the Houthi conflict – "A war with a life of its own", by Patrick Martin – appeared in the Globe and Mail yesterday. In particular, it discusses the negative role played by President Salih's kinsman, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 January 2010. Comment

Morocco's first Berber TV station

After long delays, Morocco's first Amazigh (Berber) TV channel 
was launched last week. Initially, it is broadcasting six hours a day, and 10 hours a day at weekends, in the Tachelhit, Tarifit and Tamazight dialects.

I can't vouch for the quality of the programmes but nevertheless it's a very important step forward in recognising the country's cultural diversity.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 January 2010. Comment

From niqab to surgical masks

Mask instead of the Niqab

Photograph: Al-Masry al-Youm.

The niqab controversy in Egypt (see here and here) has taken a new twist, with some female students wearing surgical masks as a substitute for the banned face veil.

Al-Masry al-Youm says Cairo university "prohibits girls from wearing the masks as well [as niqab] because it sees it as an attempt to outwit the rules".

Discussing the issue in an article for Comment Is Free, Nesrine Malik points out that "it's not only in secular Europe where societies are trying to grapple with the highly emotive question of Islamic dress" and says: "It's never really about what women wear, but about the values that women's dress implies."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 January 2010. Comment

Yemen: the Salih factor

An editorial in the Washington Post at the weekend argued in favour of sustained, long-term – and probably expensive – American support for Yemen. So far, so good, but several things bother me about this editorial.

First, the headline: "Why it's wrong to rule out nation-building in Yemen". Maybe this was just the headline-writer's carelessness, but Yemen does not need nation-building; it needs state-building.

Yemenis already have a strong sense of national identity (see Chapter 1 of my e-book, The Birth of Modern Yemen). The secessionist urges in the south and among the Houthi rebels in the north have far more to do with marginalisation and the way the Salih regime has treated them than with a separate sense of nationhood.

Yemen's real problem is the weakness of the state: central government's inability to deliver leads people to ignore the state and go their own way. The result is what Khaled Fattah, a researcher at St Andrews university, describes as a "self-cancelling" state. 

The first sentence of the Washington Post's editorial includes the now-obligatory reference (for American media, at least) to al-Qaeda. There's no doubt this magic buzzword helps to stimulate interest in Yemen within the US but, as I've pointed out before, al-Qaeda is not by any means the biggest of Yemen's problems. It's also unwise to make al-Qaeda the mainstay of arguments for long-term aid in Yemen. What if al-Qaeda goes quiet for a while? So too will the pressure to continue the aid. Yemen needs long-term support because – with or without al-Qaeda – it will still be a cause of instability in the region and beyond.

The difficult question, of course, is what kind of support Yemen should get. The Washington Post does have one or two sensible suggestions – "Independent media and civil society groups seeking to broaden political freedoms could be supported and shielded" – but then it says "Government forces could be trained not just in counterterrorism operations but in the broader counterinsurgency mission". This sounds alarmingly like a proposal to help Salih fight his private battles with the Houthis and the southerners.

The crucial point here is that the Salih regime is part of the problem, so any aid should be directed towards the Yemeni people and not towards propping up their ailing government.

Yemen resembles Afghanistan in many ways but one important difference is its politics. Yemen has had a multi-party system with (fairly) regular elections for the last 20 years. The potential for a working democracy is there but Salih's party, the General People's Congress, has established hegemony over the system (much in the way that Mubarak's National Democratic Party has done in Egypt).

However, there is a chance that this hegemony could be broken in the not-too-distant future.

Under the constitution, Salih is due to step down from the presidency – permanently – on 27 September, 2013. One very simple and constructive step the international community can take would be to make their support for Yemen conditional on Salih's departure by the due date: to allow a genuine electoral contest next time, and no messing about with the law to extend his term or let him stand again.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2010. Comment

Opposition to women-only taxis

An Egyptian women's rights group has rejected a proposal to intoduce women-only taxis in Alexandria.

The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights says the idea is a legal, religious and social setback, as well as a violation of international agreements against discrimination.

The organisation is also calling for the abolition of women-only carriages on the Cairo metro.

Amna Nousseir, a professor at al-Azhar University, told al-Masry al-Youm the proposal for segregated taxis "contradicts the nature of our Egyptian society where the woman is used to walking alongside the man without trouble".

The idea seems to have been copied from the Gulf in response to the harassment of women. Three years ago Dubai introduced taxis for women, children and families "pink roofs, pink seats and interiors, and other features to give the vehicles a feminine touch".

The trouble with projects like this, as I pointed out in connection with Dubai, is that they perpetuate gender-based discrimination and perhaps even reinforce it. Segregated transport for black people and white people would rightly be viewed as abhorrent. But if racial apartheid is unacceptable, why is gender apartheid OK?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2010. Comment

The innocence of Sheikh Issa

A court in the UAE has cleared Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nayhan, brother of Abu Dhabi's ruler, of torturing a business associate.

A video which showed Sheikh Issa, assisted by men in uniform, torturing Afghan grain dealer Mohammed Shah Poor was widely circulated last year and was even broadcast on television in the US.

In the video, Sheikh Issa, together with members of the Emirates police:

  • Fired bullets from an automatic rifle around Mr Poor;

  • Used an electric cattle prod against Mr Poor's testicles and inserted it into his anus;

  • Poured lighter fluid on Mr Poor's testicles and set them on fire;

  • Pulled down the pants of Mr Poor and repeatedly struck him with a protruding nail attached to a wooden board. At one point, Sheikh [Issa] placed the nail next to Mr Poor's buttocks and banged it through the flesh;

  • Whipped Mr Poor over all his body including his face;
    Poured a large container of salt on to Mr Poor's wounds which were still bleeding;

  • Positioned Mr Poor on the desert sand and then drove over him repeatedly in a 4x4 vehicle.

The court apparently accepted Sheikh Issa's explanation that he had been drugged by two extortionists and was therefore "unaware of his actions".

The alleged extortionists were each sentenced to five years' jail in their absence, for drugging him.

In a statement issued before the verdict was announced, Human Rights Watch pointed out that the UAE is one of only a handful of countries that have not signed the UN Convention Against Torture

"If the UAE government really wants to stop torture and to restore its sullied image, one trial will not be enough," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director, said, adding that Sheikh Issa's prosecution was "not a substitute for the institutional reforms needed to prevent torture".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2010. Comment

Fighting terror, the Mauritanian way

The government of ex-general Ould Abdel Aziz, who seized power in Mauritania in 2008 and then won a questionable election last July, has come up with a new law against terrorism.

Ould Abdel Aziz is generally given an easy ride internationally – easier than he deserves – because, as the Associated Press likes to point out, Mauritania is seen as a "bulwark" against al-Qaeda.

But the newly-approved anti-terror law (text here, in Arabic) is causing some concern. Opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah has denounced it as containing "articles contradictory to the sharia, to morality, and to Islamic values as well as democratic principles and liberty".

The law does include some potentially useful provisions but it flounders on the question of defining terrorism – particularly in its broadness and its vagueness.

Article 3, for example, treats “threatening the internal or external security of the state” as an act of terrorism – which Kal, in a critique of the law on the Moor Next Door blog, describes as "a classical approach to despotic authoritarianism". Article 3 also specifies "cyber" crime as terrorism, without any elaboration. 

Similarly, it is terrorism to interfere with the "safety" of air, sea or land transport. Could this apply to a kid throwing a stone at a riot vehicle, or a driver bumping into a police car? There's nothing in the law to suggest it couldn't.

In many ways this is reminiscent of the Egyptian attempts to draft an anti-terrorism law. Noting that the Egyptian draft "appears to include in the definition of terrorism acts that do not entail physical violence against human beings", a UN special rapporteur warned: "Any anti-terrorism law that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism is problematic."

The danger with loosely-drafted laws of this kind is that they can easily discredit genuine efforts to combat terrorism. Critics of the Mauritanian law, Kal writes, are not "appeasers", but they know "that the government’s talk about fighting terrorism is a way of consolidating power and using the parliament to give a glossy sheen to an incompetent leader unserious about terrorism, or much else apart from sitting in office".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 January 2010. Comment

The prince of R&B


You may find it entirely unsurprising – and perhaps uninteresting too – to learn that until last year no Saudi royal had ever performed in a music video.

But that was before Prince Faisal bin Mansour bin Thunayan Al Saud, who previously "worked" as a bodybuilder and motorcyclist decided to embark on a new career in R&B.

The prince (seen here looking ultra-cool with shaved head and shades) has brought out two songs, “Dear Mother Dear Father” and “Never Too Late”.

The Falafel Mafia blog, which has the full story, says the lyrics (in English) are "exactly what you would expect from a rich Saudi royal with Beyonce and piety on the mind". Here's a sample:

It was at this at this party / where I saw this shorty / and she was all over the place / tried to get male attention / by wearing short dresses / but she had a sad look on her face / young sister / you ain’t gotta dress the way that you seen on TV / be true to (Allah) yourself nobody else / and believe me you’re gonna be free / everybody makes mistakes / but it’s no reason to lose your faith / just believe that God is great / and inshalla you’ll find your way

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2010. Comment

Tolerating intolerance in Egypt

Following the drive-by shootings in Nag Hammadi on Tuesday night, Coptic Christians marked their Christmas Day by going on the rampage yesterday. Here is the New York Times' account.

Once again, though, it is the Emirates-based paper, The National, which has the most perceptive reporting in English. Pointing out that "the past two years have seen a noticeable increase in hate crimes against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority", it quotes Mounir Megahed, director of the non-governmental organisation, Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination:

“I think that Egyptian society in general, and particularly in these places in Upper Egypt, is becoming more intolerant ... The state is soft in tackling the issue. They do not put people who commit these crimes to trial.”

These – government inaction against the perpetrators of violence and allowing a culture of intolerance to fester – are the two key points.

The authorities are reluctant to prosecute, presumably for fear of stirring up more trouble. This is coupled with an atmosphere of complacency and denial among officialdom.

“It’s something that happens between people, especially in communities with a low standard of culture or education like Upper Egypt," Salem Abdel Gelil, deputy minister for preaching at Egypt’s ministry of awqaf, tells The National.

Meanwhile Fawzi Zifzaf, the former head of the committee on religious dialogue at al-Azhar University, says: “Any clashes between Muslims and Christians [are] not a general clash at a high level. They are individual incidents. Revenge in Upper Egypt is a tradition. It’s a bad tradition, but it’s there.”

Both men also blame the media for "a tendency to exaggerate the motives, casting feuding families as crusading religious zealots".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2010. Comment

Making sense of Yemen

It's an unfortunate fact of life that whenever Yemen becomes front-page news, sensible commentary about the country becomes harder to find.

Here, though, are two pieces worth reading. One is from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. The other – appropriately headed "Aiding Yemen or aiding Saleh?" – is from Sean Lee at The Human Province blog.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2010. Comment

Murder at the midnight mass

Seven people were shot dead outside a church in upper Egypt late last night following a mass to celebrate the Coptic Christmas. Al-Jazeera says three men in a car drove past and opened fire with machineguns in Nag Hammadi, 40 miles from Luxor.

A local bishop was quoted as saying he and members of the congregation had received threats before the attack and the midnight mass had been held an hour early because of them..

Communal violence flared up in the town last November after a 12-year-old Muslim girl was allegedly raped by a Christian man. Christian-owned properties were attacked during five days of rioting by Muslims in retaliation. On Saturday, a court released 14 people who had been detained in connection with the attacks.

Today's issue of al-Masry al-Youm describes the fears of Christians living in the area.

Earlier this week, al-Masry al-Youm reported the formation of a National Committee for Combating Sectarian Violence "to campaign against what they perceive as the state’s failure in fighting rising violence targeting Egypt’s Christian minority".

The new organisation, which is backed by 22 rights groups, several small political parties and 61 "public figures", says the state's reluctance to tackle sectarian violence (or even admit that sectarian tensions exist) bestows "a kind of endorsement and support" on the perpetrators.

Egypt has the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Muslim-Christian relations are such a sensitive issue that the actual number of Christians in the country remains a state secret, though they are thought to account for around 10% of the population – about eight million people.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 January 2010. Comment

Hopes for ceasefire in Yemen war

For the first time in several months there are renewed hints of a possible ceasefire in northern Yemen's Houthi conflict. President Ali Abdullah Salih has set out a revised list of six conditions:

1. A full ceasefire, the re-establishment of safe passage on roads, and the surrender of mountain strongholds.

2. Full withdrawal from all districts occupied, with no further interference with the responsibilities of local authorities.

3. The return of all military and public equipment seized during hostilities.

4. The release of all detained civilians and soldiers.

5. Agreement to abide by the constitution, law and order.

6. Cessation of attacks within all Saudi territories.

"With a serious commitment to these six points, we will see a full ceasefire begin immediately," an official of the government's Higher Security Committee told the Yemen Observer. "However, there is no grace period. We expect that the rebel forces would immediately begin the necessary steps to accomplish these conditions without procrastination or omission.

"In the past, the rebel forces have utilized the grace period as an advantageous time to stockpile weapons, plan fresh attacks and gain territory. This will not be the case this time," the official added.

The Houthi rebels are reportedly ready to comply "if there is a fair and comprehensive solution that will guarantee the war will never erupt again," according to their spokesman, Mohammed Abdul Salam. "The government should declare the ceasefire and sit with the Houthis and look to their demands."

The latest list of conditions is slightly different from the list issued by the government shortly after it launched "Operation Scorched Earth" against the rebels last August.

The earlier version called on the rebels to disclose the fate of six kidnapped foreigners (one British man and a German family). This became a stumbling block because the Houthis denied involvement in the kidnapping. The new list talks more vaguely about releasing "all detained civilians".

The new list also adds a demand to refrain from attacking Saudi territory – an issue that had not arisen until November.

On Monday, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi assistant defence minister, visited President Salih carrying a letter from King Abdullah. What they discussed has not been disclosed (apart from the usual "brotherly relations") but this could be a further indication that a ceasefire is on the cards. Saudi Arabia officially joined the war against the Houthis two months ago.

Yemeni forces have been fighting the Houthis off and on for more than five years. The current round flared up last August.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (2)

Once again, a Filipina domestic worker has plunged to her death from a balcony. Theresa Otero Seda, 28, died in the Sanayeh district of Beirut. She had apparently slashed her wrists before falling.

Matthew Cassel's blog describes the scene, highlighting the off-hand attitude of emergency services and passers-by. The Daily Star also has a report: "After Seda’s body was covered, cars continued to speed along the road, at times coming close to running over her corpse."

The misery of foreign domestic workers employed by the better-off Arab families is a problem throughout the region. I 
wrote about it last October in connection with Kuwait.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2010. Comment

Yemeni forces fire on sit-in

Yemeni security forces opened fire on a sit-down protest outside the offices of the banned al-Ayyam newspaper in Aden yesterday, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The Paris-based press freedom organisation accused President Salih's government of "taking advantage of support from foreign powers in the fight against terrorism on its soil to deliberately violate people’s rights".

Al-Sahwa website says a soldier was killed in the "confrontations", though al-Ayyam's editor, Hisham Bashraheel, is quoted by Reporters Without Borders as saying: "The police even aimed at one of their own number to make it look like the demonstrators were armed, when in fact everyone came to protest peacefully."

The truth of the matter is unclear, though it would not be surprising if the authorities had sought a confrontation. Pictures from Aden Gulf Network News show men sitting around peacefully on carpets, barefooted and chewing qat – scarcely the way to prepare for a riot, I would have thought.

Al-Ayyam, which is Aden's oldest newspaper, was one of six papers banned last May, allegedly for supporting "separatism" in the south of Yemen.

  • A curious footnote: Aden Gulf Network News clearly has separatist sympathies and its report in Arabic refers to the Yemeni security forces as the forces of "occupation" (ihtilal). Google's online translation into English renders the word "ihtilal" as "Israeli". An easy mistake to make, perhaps.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2010. Comment

Petition against internet censorship

Following the introduction of internet censorship in Algeria (reported here last weekend), an online petition has been organised to oppose it.

The petition, which is in Arabic, French and English, says:

We, the undersigned, individuals and organisations, oppose the Algerian government's attempt at Internet censorship. We ask that no website should be banned for arbitrary or political reasons.

We urge the Algerian authorities to concentrate on strengthening the weak communications infrastructure and we encourage Algerians to actively participate in the civil discource using the Internet.

The Algerian people deserve a competent, free and uncensored Internet.

The web page also contains some background information.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2010. Comment

Help Yemen, not its government

Concerned about the "regional and global threat" from terrorists in Yemen, Gordon Brown is to host an emergency summit in London later this month. Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is a country that tends to be off the radar except when something untoward happens affecting foreigners – when it gets a brief period of attention before it's forgotten again ... Read more at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2010. Comment

Beware the militant engineers

Amid all the discussion of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his activities prior to boarding flight 253 for Detroit, the fact that he spent three years in London studying mechanical engineering has attracted relatively little attention.

A degree in engineering has no obvious connection with terrorism or religious/political extremism – and yet some research published earlier this year suggests it may be highly relevant ... Read more at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2010. Comment

Algerian website blocked 

Algeria's new internet censorship has got under way with the blocking, for the first time, of a political website. Le Quotidien d'Algerie reports (in French) that the opposition website Rachad is no longer accessible from within the country.

The Algerian government had earlier announced plans for a centralised internet filtering (ie censorship) system, along with stiff penalties for anyone who circumvents the filtering. 

It has been selling the idea of filtering to the Algerian public on the grounds that it will help to combat cyber-crime, pornography and extremism but there have been suspicions all along that it would be used to silence websites that are critical of the government – a suspicion that now seems to be confirmed.

Discussing the latest move, the Algerian Review blog says the website concerned belongs to the Rachad Movement, "a loose opposition organisation in exile formed by a mix of former diplomats, ex-civil servants, journalists and members of the now banned Islamist party FIS. The movement campaigns for a peaceful overthrow of the current regime."

It suggests Rachad had annoyed the government by publishing a story (officially denied and probably wrong) about the possibility of establishing a "temporary" US military presence in Algeria.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2010. Comment

Britain calls summit on Yemen

The British prime minister's decision to call an international summit on Yemen is widely reported this morning. It appears to have support from the US and the EU, and there are suggestions that Saudia Arabia and other Gulf states may get involved.

The talks will be held in London on 28 January, alongside a conference on the future of Afghanistan.

News reports suggest the meeting will focus primarily on tackling al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen, though a Downing Street statement cited by the BBC also talks of "tackling radicalisation through aid and reform".

I'm not convinced that Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton fully appreciate the nature of the problems in Yemen and a mis-judged approach could make things worse rather than better. But I'll probably have more to say about that in a few days.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




January 2010

Yemen ceasefire talk ... again

Saudi couple get their marriage back

Tunisia damned with faint praise

End of the Saudi-Houthi war?

Saving Yemen

Serious about civil society?

No laughing matter 

National Torture Day

Clinton, Arabs and the internet

'Rape victim' jailed in Saudi Arabia

UN to scrutinise Tunisia

Prince Bandar disappears

US senate discusses Yemen

Riot in Saudi women's prison

Two hours to save Yemen

Arrested for insulting Mubarak

Saudi man, 80, weds girl aged 12

Why were they arrested?

'Condolence mission' halted in Egypt

Saudi internet censorship

Mauritanian fatwa against FGM

Al-Qaeda ... or not?

Death threat to Yemeni editor

More niqab protests in Egypt

Plight of a Sri Lankan maid

Saudi move to end child marriages

Yemen's humanitarian crisis deepens

Morocco's first Berber TV station

From niqab to surgical masks

Yemen: the Salih factor

Opposition to women-only taxis

The innocence of Sheikh Issa

Fighting terror, the Mauritanian way

The prince of R&B

Tolerating intolerance in Egypt

Making sense of Yemen

Murder at the midnight mass

Hopes for ceasefire in Yemen war

Misery of the housemaids (2)

Yemeni forces fire on sit-in

Petition against internet censorship

Help Yemen, not its government

Beware the militant engineers

Algerian website blocked

Britain calls summit on Yemen


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 16 January, 2010